SPECIAL REPORT: The story behind Sony's work to build a new virtual Home for gamers – and how developers can contribute.
The overall positive response to Home, Sony's new 3D virtual world front-end for the PS, at last month's GDC must come as something of a relief to the SCEE.
The result of two years' hard work and secret investigations into online experiences, it is a project whose foundations have been carefully built to not only withstand the inevitable upswing in PlayStation 3 users (the machine already has over 2m owners around the globe), but remain flexible enough to cope with ongoing changes and added content and input from third party developers and publishers.
Like with any plan, however, Sony refined its idea until it had a final blueprint. The service originally started out as a PS2 prototype for an online lobby called Hub.
"The brief was to investigate an online lobby, a place where gamers could meet, interact and play social games," explains Jonathan Venables, lead artist on the project in an opinion piece written exclusively for the next issue of Develop.
He previously worked on The Getaway Black Monday and moved to the Hub team as that game finished. The first thing he and the rest of the team realised was that most online lobbies awere discriminatory rather than inclusive. Says Venables: "For many, the then online gaming experience was unfriendly. Usually after battling with a text-heavy lobby you eventually log in... and get shot in the face."
"Some thing more accessible and elegant was needed."
HOME SWEET HOME
Prototyping and the small size of the Hub/Home team proved key to getting close the elegant solution that was debuted at GDC last month, however - a mix 'n' match build strategy that mirrors the service's technical base. While the bulk of the client and design work was done in London, UK at Sony's London Studio, it uses shared online technology devised by Sony Japan, SCEA and Sony Online Entertainment.
Explains Venables: "The PS2 prototype phase was a frenetic but creative period. Looking back at my early art schedules I am amazed how diverse the work and versatile the team had to be. Being a small team meant we that we were able to respond in an agile manner to new design concepts and could quickly prototype and present ideas fortnightly."
But as fortnights turned into months, it soon became apparent that Sony's ambitions were bigger than the PS2. It's also probable that, as the activity behind that machine started to wane as PS3 began to cast its shadow, that Hub would make more sense as part of the PlayStation 3's free online service.
Explains Venables: “As time passed we gained momentum and team morale grew as did belief in the product.
"After the first PS3 devkits turned up we started to repeat our work in this exciting next-gen environment and a whole new bunch of challenges arose. With perseverance, the momentum generated from the prototype phase continued, the team grew as did the concept, design and associated expectations of Home."
Certainly, the service has far more potential starting on PS3, says Sony's Worldwide Studio president Phil Harrison.
"We always had our vision for it being a very rich 3D immersive world - that was always the vision from day one," Harrison told Develop at GDC.
"But when we moved to PS3 we were able to realise a much richer more sophisticated more immersive experience with new channels coming in from video, audio, 3D animation and so on."
The result has meant users can use the PS3 to stream their own media into their virtual spaces and also visit locations potentially hosted by third party games companies and movie studios with streaming video. A 3D platform for Home, rather than Hub's 2D one, means assets can be natively exported from games built using Maya and incorporated straight into the service when it comes to developers and publishers building their own spaces.
As was explained at GDC, Home ties heavily into Sony's wider Game 3.0 philosophy, which is encouraging the industry to think about how to keep games relevant in an age dominated by the likes of MySpace, Amazon and Google.
"Home is a pretty big step in that area," says Harrison. "It demonstrates something we've talked about a lot but not been allowed to crystallise in an example yet."
Prior to the Home announcement (and before the pre-GDC leak that detailed Home - "I'm surprised we kept it secret for so long," says Harrison) the SCE WS president had said that Sony would trump Nintendo's Mii player avatars and had told journalists that the growing influence of non-game virtual worlds like Second Life, which emphasises social interaction over gameplay was something Sony was closely monitoring.
"What we have talked about a lot is constant improvement - we will always add different functionalities through software updates and software applications," he adds, explaining that Sony' new service will continue to evolve and add features as more users sign on and more media companies, games developer and brand-holders take part.
And what of the inevitable comparison to Second Life, and the clear distinction to give a 3D representation to Trophies, Sony's own Xbox Live-like achievements?
Harrison says that relating Home to what already exists is only a secondary concern to the main priority: creating something worthwhile and engaging: "It wasn't a conscious decision to differentiate from other online experiences we just new where we were headed and as we grew we were able to add much more immersive content as well."
The important thing, says Harrison, is how, ultimately, the creation of Home is not purely a Sony endeavour - it's something gamers and developers will contribute to the building of.
And those contributions will in turn rack up cash. SCEDEV’s official documentation for the service says that while the primary function of Home is a social environment “there will be ample opportunities for business and individuals alike to generate significant revenues” from advertising, content purchases and auctions.
But the priority is still on the community and interaction that this activity by other companies will give rise to, says Harrison.
"By extending the community into the game application itself and empowering users... that will extend the life cycle of games and will extend the relationship the player has with the game. It also brings game designers and the game audience closer together - that relationship is quite compelling. The trend of user-created or developer-created content inside Home, having a space where a developer can preview new character designs and have the audience vote on them - that kind of engagement between audience and developers is really interesting.
"It's not just developers, either - it's retailers, publishers - anyone."
Home is "just good for everybody" he concludes.